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The Bible’s First Translation Was in Greek

The bible
The bible, the best-selling and most translated book in all of history, also the most influential of all time. Credit: NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng) / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Bible is the biggest-selling and most read book in human history; originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the first translation of the Bible into another language, called the Septuagint, was in Greek.

The translation of the Old Testament into Koine Greek in the third century BC took place within a historical context that was important for the development of the “Tanakh,” or Hebrew Bible, and the growth of Judaism and Christianity.

The Septuagint

Letter of Aristeas
Beginning of the Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates where he writes about the Septuagint. Credit: Aristeas/Unknown author / Public domain

Hebrew, the original language of the Jews, ceased to be a spoken language during the exile or post-exile period, and Aramaic became the lingua franca or common language of the Jewish people.

With the rise of Alexander the Great and the Greek Empire, Diaspora Jews became Hellenized; and for some Jews, especially those living in Ptolemaic Egypt, Greek had become their primary language. Therefore, it became necessary for the Hebraic laws to be translated into Greek.

Demetrius of Phalerum, the chief librarian of the library of Alexandria, urged Egypt’s Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus to translate the Hebrew law into Greek to increase the library’s collection of books.

The high priest chose six men from each of the twelve Hebrew tribes, for 72 in all; after a sermon regarding the law, the translators arrived in Alexandria. For the next seven days he posed philosophical questions to the translators.

The work of the 72 was reportedly completed in 72 days. They mainly translated the Hebrew law, or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible today.

The Jews of Alexandria, upon reading the law in Greek, asked for copies of the translation and cursed those who dared to change the translation. The king rewarded the translators handsomely and sent them home.

pSalm 90 greek translation bible
Psalm 90 translated into Greek from the Septuagint in one of the Oxyrhynchus papyri (ca. 450). Credit: 5thCentury monk / Public domain

This story is recounted in “The Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates,” a Hellenistic-era work from the 3rd century BC, known to be the oldest text that mentions the library of Alexandria.

The work bears this name because it was written by Aristeas, a courtier of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, to his brother Philocrates. In the missive he recounts the reasons for the Greek translation of the Hebrew laws. However, it should be pointed out that the letter is considered by many scholars as questionable.

The main intention of the translation was to impose the Greek Septuagint over any other version of the Hebrew Bible. In the translation, moreover, they portray Zeus as another name for the God of Israel.

Twenty handwritten copies of the letter in Greek, written from the 11th to the 15th century, survive.

The 70 translators

Originally there were 72 translators, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, but it was shortened to 70, and therefore they gave the work the name “Septuagint,” or “the book of the 70s.”

When the Jewish scholars were brought to Alexandria, the king asked them philosophical and profound questions for seven days. Ptolemy II Philadelphus was amazed at the wisdom of the 72 men.

A miraculous event supposedly occurred, when, after 72 days, the translators drew up exact copies of the Septuagint separately.

The story that is known through the Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates was repeated in later sources, including Philo of Alexandria, and Josephus in “Antiquities of the Jews.” It is also found in the Tractate Megillah of the Babylonian Talmud, where it says:

“King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one’s room and said: ‘Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.’ God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did.”

The importance of the Septuagint

old greek bible translation
Old Bible from a Greek monastery. Credit: Alinea / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

After the translation of the Torah, the other books of the Old Testament were translated. The New Testament was originally written in Greek.

This Greek translation of the Bible is important because it added theological concepts that help to better understand the religious and political context in which the prophets lived. The Septuagint has helped scholars determine which manuscripts are most reliable, giving a faithful translation of the Old Testament.

In addition, the Septuagint helps to better understand Jewish theology, by better understanding the worship practices of the Jewish people.

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are names entered into the Bible through the Septuagint. Just as the division of the books into law, history, poetry, and prophets, as well as the subdivision of books like 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, etc., are due to the Septuagint.

The Septuagint was the Bible of the early church, and the most cited text by the Apostles and authors of the New Testament. Mark 7: 6-7 says: ‘Jesus replied, “Isaiah was right about you hypocrites when he said, ‘These people claim they honor me, but in their thinking they are far from me. There’s no point in their worship of me, for what they teach as doctrines are merely human rules’, referring to the Septuagint.

And the Apostle Paul, the greatest writer of the New Testament, didn’t write his letters in vulgate Greek, he wrote in language worthy of a learned man who knew Greek perfectly and already had the Septuagint in his mind.

Before the New Testament was written, the Old Testament had already been translated into Greek. This facilitated the understanding and creation of the Bible as we know it today.

Today, the Bible has been fully translated into 450 languages.

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